Sweet days at the sugar house

Ball Brook keeps things on the boil for Maple Open House Weekend

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POWNAL — Travelers along Niles School Road on Saturday first found snow, then some mud, and then, tapped into a line of trees leading to one big and bent-over maple, the signature metal, hanging buckets. Just beyond the buckets, the driveway to Ball Brook Sugar House curved (albeit through snow-mixed muck) to a steaming sugar shack.

Inside, friends and family of Dave Dence, Ball Brook's 38-year-old principal operator, stayed busy.

Nathan Cardinal, Dence's former forestry and heavy equipment student from Southwest Vermont Career Development Center, kept an eye on the boiling sap. Family friend Murray Lewis, in a sweatshirt bearing the embroidered red outline of a maple leaf and the words "head boiler," stuffed wood into the evaporator's furnace.

Meanwhile, Lewis' nieces, Amanda Lewis and Shayna Wells, oversaw the taste-test table. They stuffed mini ice cream cones with maple cream and arranged small cups of syrup with pieces of pancakes freshly made by Dence's brother, Rob.

A combination of everyone's kids wandered everywhere in-between. They made maple snow-cones (at first for free, and then for a small fee), built a sugar house model (again, out of snow), and shoveled (yet more snow) to get rid of ruts in the driveway.

As for Dence, he spent the first part of Saturday morning clearing snow and gathering sap from his 1,400 taps before joining the rest of the crew. While Friday night's snow added extra preparation work for Vermont's annual Maple Open House Weekend, Dence said it also added moisture to the sugar bush.

"The snow was what we needed in the woods," he said. "Things were starting to dry out."

Dence said he thought it was thanks to a wet autumn that his sap has particularly high sugar content this year. After a slow start to the season due to cold temperatures, Ball Brook boiled for the sixth time on Saturday. Following more cold Saturday night and a warmer day Sunday, Dence said the sap would run again "like crazy."

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"This is more of what they'd consider tradition sugar season," he added, noting that he had finished boiling by the end of March two years ago. But this year has been similar to how things were three decades ago, when he first started making maple syrup.

"I learned it from my father," Dence said. "I had buckets and a pan over a campfire."

While he still has about 100 taps using the old-fashioned metal buckets, Dence's process has grown much larger and more sophisticated over time.

Ball Brook is now on its third sugar house and fourth evaporator. It produces an annual average of 500 gallons of maple syrup — most of which goes to Lumber Jack's Coffee in Hoosick Falls for their maple lattes — as well as other products like maple cream. Dence even has a real, industrial maple cream-making machine, which he bought that after trying to use a Kitchen Aid mixer and it caught on fire.

"It's a lot of work," Dence said. And it's work he does in addition to teaching at the Southwest Vermont Career Development Center and managing his company, Greater Heights Tree and Landscape Management.

"I could never do any of it without my awesome friends," Dence said. "Every night we boil, the sugar house is full."

On Saturday and Sunday, the goal was to keep the sugar house full during Maple Open House Weekend. Ball Brook didn't use its reverse osmosis machine in order to keep the sap boiling and the sugary steam rising for as long as possible.

"It's a hobby gone bad," Dence said. "It's fun."


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